Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. E. C. Stedman and G. E. Woodberry), “Seba Smith,” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: Stone and Kimball, vol. VIII, 1895, pp. 242-247


[page 242:]


WHAT few notices we have seen of “Powhatan,” speak of it as the production of Mrs. Seba Smith. To be sure, gentlemen may be behind the scenes, and know more about the matter than we do. They may have some private reason for understanding that black is white — some reason into which we, personally, are not initiated. But, to ordinary perception, “Powhatan” is the composition of Seba Smith, Esquire, of Jack Downing memory, and not of his wife. Seba Smith is the name upon the title-page; and the personal pronoun which supplies the place of this well-known prænomen and cognomen in the preface, is, we are constrained to say, of the masculine gender. the “author of Powhatan,” — thus, for example, runs a portion of the prolegomena — “does not presume to claim for his production the merit of good and genuine poetry, nor does he pretend to assign it a place in the classes or forms into which poetry is divided” — in all which, by the way, he is decidedly right. But can it be that no gentleman has read even so far as the Preface of the book? Can it be that the critics have had no curiosity to creep into the adyta — into the inner mysteries of this temple? If so, they are decidedly right too.

“Powhatan” is handsomely bound. Its printing is clear beyond comparison. Its paper is magnificent, and we undertake to say (for we have read it through with the greatest attention) that there is not a single typographical error in it, from one end to the other. [page 243:] Further than this, in the way of commendation, no man with both brains and conscience should proceed. In truth a more absurdly flat affair — for flat is the only epithet which applies in this case — was never before paraded to the world, with so grotesque an air of bombast and assumption.

To give some idea of the tout ensemble of the book — we have first a Dedication to the “Young People of the United States,” in which Mr. Jack Downing lives, in “the hope that he may do some good in his day and generation, by adding something to the sources of rational enjoyment and mental culture.” Next, we have a Preface, occupying four pages, in which, quoting his publishers, the author tells us that poetry is a “very great bore, and won’t sell” — a thing which cannot be denied in certain cases, but which Mr. Downing denies in his own. “It may be true,” he says, “of endless masses of words, that are poured forth from the press, under the name of poetry” — but it is not true “of genuine poetry — of that which is worthy of the name” — in short, we presume he means to say it is not in the least little bit true of “Powhatan;” with regard to whose merits he wishes to be tried, not by the critics (we fear, in fact, that here it is the critics who will be tried), but by the “common taste of common readers” — all which ideas are common enough, to say no more.

We have next, a “Sketch of the Character of Powhatan,” which is exceedingly interesting and commendable, and which is taken from Burk’s “History of Virginia:” — four pages more. Then comes a Proem — four pages more — forty-eight lines — twelve lines to a page — in which all that we can understand, is something about the name of “Powhatan,” [page 244:]

“Descending to a distant age,

Embodied forth on the deathless page”

of the author — that is to say, of Jack Downing, Esquire. We have now one after the other, CANTOS one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven — each subdivided into PARTS, by means of Roman numerals — some of these PARTS comprehending as many as six lines — upon the principle, we presume, of packing up precious commodities in small bundles. The volume then winds up with Notes, in proportion of three to one, as regards the amount of text, and taken, the most of them, from Burk’s Virginia, as before.

It is very difficult to keep one’s countenance when reviewing such a work as this; but we will do our best, for the truth’s sake, and put on as serious a face as the case will admit.

The leading fault of “Powhatan,” then, is precisely what its author supposes to be its principal merit. “It would be difficult,” he says, in that pitiable preface, in which he has so exposed himself, “to find a poem that embodies more truly the spirit of history, or indeed that follows out more faithfully many of its details.” It would, indeed; and we are very sorry to say it. The truth is, Mr. Downing has never dreamed of any artistic arrangement of his facts. He has gone straight forward, like a blind horse, and turned neither to the one side nor to the other, for fear of stumbling. But he gets them all in — every one of them — the facts we mean. Powhatan never did anything in his life, we are sure, that Mr. Downing has not got in his poem. He begins at the beginning, and goes on steadily to the end — painting away at his story, just as a sign-painter at a sign; beginning at the left hand side of his board, and plastering through [page 245:] to the right. But he has omitted one very ingenious trick of the sign-painter. He has forgotten to write under his portrait — “this is a pig,” and thus there is some danger of mistaking it for an opossum.

But we are growing scurrilous, in spite of our promise, and must put on a sober visage once more. It is a hard thing, however, when we have to read and write about such doggrel as this: —

“But bravely to the river’s brink

I led my warrior train,

And face to face, each glance they sent,

We sent it back again.

Their werowance looked stern at me,

And I looked stern at him,

And all my warriors clasped their bows,

And nerved each heart and limb.

I raised my heavy war-club high,

And swung it fiercely round,

And shook it towards the shallop’s side,

Then laid it on the ground.

And then the lighted calumet

I offered to their view,

And thrice I drew the sacred smoke,

And toward the shallop blew,

And as the curling vapor rose

Soft as a spirit prayer,

I saw the pale-face leader wave

A white flag in the air.

Then launching out their painted skiff

They boldly came to land,

And spoke us many a kindly word,

And took us by the hand,

Presenting rich and shining gifts,

Of copper, brass, and beads,

To show that they were men like us,

And prone to generous deeds.

We held a long and friendly talk,

Inquiring whence they came, [page 246:]

And who the leader of their band

And what their country’s name.

And how their mighty shallop moved

Across the boundless sea,

And why they touched our great king’s land

Without his liberty.”

It won’t do. We cannot sing to this tune any longer. We greatly prefer,

John Gilpin was a gentleman

Of credit and renown,

A train-band captain eke was he

Of famous London town.

Or —

Old Grimes is dead, that good old man,

We ne’er shall see him more,

He used to wear an over-coat

All buttoned down before —

or lines to that effect — we wish we could remember the words. The part, however, about

Their werowance looked stern at me,

And I looked stern at him —

is not quiteoriginal with Mr. Downing — is it? We merely ask for information. Have we not heard something about

An old crow sitting on a hickory limb,

Who winked at me, and I winked at him.

The simple truth is, that Mr. Downing never committed a greater mistake in his life than when he fancied himself a poet, even in the ninety-ninth degree. We doubt whether he could distinctly state the difference between an epic and an epigram. And it will not do for him to appeal from the critic tocommon readers — because we assure him his book is a very [page 247:] uncommon book. We never saw any one so uncommonly bad — nor one about whose parturition so uncommon a fuss has been made, so little to the satisfaction of common sense. Your poem is a curiosity, Mr. Jack Downing; your “Metrical Romance” is not worth a single half sheet of the paste-board upon which it is printed. This is our humble and honest opinion; and, although honest opinions are not very plentiful just now, you can have ours at what it is worth. But we wish, before parting, to ask you one question. What do you mean by that motto from Sir Philip Sidney, upon the title-page? “He cometh to you with a tale that holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney-corner.” What do you mean by it, we say. Either you cannot intend to apply it to the “tale” of Powhatan, or else all the “old men” in your particular neighborhood must be very old men; and all the “little children” a set of dunderheaded little ignoramouses.






[S:0 - SW, 1895] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Seba Smith (Stedman and Woodberry, 1895)